Musings on Scripture

– and what isn’t always said

Tag: Pharisee

12th March 2017 (Lent 2)

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

John 3:1-17

1There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews 2who came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ 3Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ 4Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ 5Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” 8The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ 9Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ 10Jesus answered him, ‘You are a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

11‘Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man; 14and just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

16‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

17‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

Text © The New Revised Standard Version (English Edition) alt, used with permission.

Poor Nicodemus gets a bad wrap from so many people. I had to look hard for an image to go with this passage, showing Nicodemus not in full Pharisaic garb but in some form of camouflage, as I believe he would have been when he approached Jesus under cover of darkness. As a leading Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin – the body charged with ruling on religious matters, he could not afford to be seen fraternising with Jesus because to do so openly would most likely have resulted in him being charged with an offence against the Jewish faith, and removed from office. Nicodemus, then, being as discreet as he could and wearing an outfit which would not have identified him, discusses Christ’s work. It is interesting that he opens with “we know”, not “I know”. Was that because other members of the Sanhedrin also acknowledged that Jesus must be from God because of what He was able to achieve? Clearly Nicodemus has noted things which Christ has been doing and rightly attributes them to Jesus being “in the presence of God”, though he doesn’t say that Jesus is God in human form. I don’t want to be too harsh on this discussion because I appreciate that someone who has been brought up to believe that God is omnipotent, out of this world, and definitely not human, and who has been teaching that for some time, will have a problem crossing the divide. Like Thomas, after the crucifixion, Nicodemus is asking questions which will help his faith grow – and grow it did, so much so that Nicodemus later brought a large quantity of embalming ointments and spices to assist Joseph of Arimathea prepare the body of Jesus for burial [John 19:39].

Translations always require interpretation of some critical words, and that can affect how the reader perceives the meaning of a passage. The Greek of verse 3 uses the word ανωθεν (anothen) which has been translated as “from above”, “anew” or “again”. Nicodemus, being the practical person, thinks of being born again as requiring him to re-enter his mother’s womb for a physical re-birth. Non-Christians hearing this passage today are likely to think the same thing, so maybe we need to use another word or phrase to convey the meaning of the Greek text – and that’s what a real translation is all about. If we stick to the strict meaning of a word when we shift from one language to another we are transliterating, and we risk making something sound ridiculous, or misleading.

The teacher speaks again because His student hasn’t got the meaning the first time. This time the reference is to being born of water and the Spirit. In the lead up to a birth we talk about the waters breaking, and we know that our bodies are predominantly water. Here the comparison is between the human birth and the Spiritual birth, when we accept the presence of the Holy Spirit and start listening to God through that Spirit. Many people never get to recognise God’s Spirit within them. There’s an old joke which, like scripture, is told in many contexts according to the listeners, about a professor trying to prove that God doesn’t exist because we can’t see Him, with one student pointing out that the same logic could be used to prove that the professor didn’t have a brain. We can’t prove that the Spirit doesn’t exist, and if we open the door to experience we can encounter that Spirit and listen to it.

Jesus talks of people not knowing where the wind comes from and where it goes to, yet we know it exists. That’s not a good example in the 21st century for a meteorologist like me, but I understand the concept beautifully. When we listen to the Spirit within us we take on tasks which might scare us, or which might require us to do something which can have negative consequences for us, but really positive consequences for the Christian community. We should open our wings and let the Spirit blow us where it wants us to go.

The response to Nicodemus’ question “how can these things be?” is another example of a translation issue. That rendition of this verse, as I’ve included above, comes not from the NRSV, or my favourite reading bible, the REB, because I don’t think either renders it with the incredulity that it deserves. “Nicodemus, you consider yourself a teacher of Israel, and you are respected for being in that role, yet you don’t understand this concept of the Spirit? We need to do some serious work helping you, so that you can help others.” Yes, coach!

The joke comes back to haunt us. In campaigns for the Western Australian State election, which was held on 11th March, we heard much about care for the environment, the use of renewable energy, and financial management, all of which we can’t see, yet are things of this world. Can we expect people who were unable to appreciate an opinion which differed from theirs on such worldly matters, understand us when we expect talk of spiritual matters? We are meaning-making machines and so tend to want to be able to explain things, but language itself limits our ability to describe God, or even just our own experience of God, so we have to accept the mystery of faith.

The grammatical construction “no-one has ascended into heaven except … the Son of Man”, using a past tense, suggests to me that John is saying Jesus had previously ascended into heaven. That is complicated even more by some translations including an extra five words in the Greek on which they are based, and effectively reporting that Jesus was in heaven at the time. That makes for a very awkward reading, given that Jesus was talking to a Pharisee, and well before His crucifixion and resurrection. Do I understand why this verse has been written this way? No, and I’m not convinced by any of the attempts to explain it, though John’s command of the Greek wasn’t always the best.

On the other hand, the reference to Moses is much easier. Jesus was portrayed more than once as being greater than Moses, so the lifting up of the (bronze) serpent on a pole, to bring healing to the people had to be confined to second place at least. Jesus would be lifted up on the cross for the sake of the people, but did Nicodemus get it? Probably not, at that stage. The challenge of thinking about eternal life would have been difficult, yet Nicodemus did believe that Jesus was closer to God than anyone else he had met, and the seeds of faith growth had been set.

For Christians, brought up with the idea that God is love, it is not difficult to understand that God loved the world that He had created so much that He sent His son to help people back on the way to be in communion with Him. The vigneron sent his servants to collect the rent that was due, but the tenants didn’t listen to them, and killed them – just like God sending His prophets and the religious hierarchy ignoring them at their peril, and making life difficult for those prophets. We might remember the vigneron sending his own son to redeem the situation and liken it to God sending His son in the hope that people would listen. Christ had already forecast his crucifixion with reference to the serpent, but the reference to the son also being killed can’t be missed. Everyone, without exception, who believes that Jesus is Lord and Son of God will have eternal life, so when our mortal bodies can no longer sustain us we know that we will be cared for. It is the person within the body who is important to God, and should be important to us, though we tend to look at the body and judge people based on that.

Some Christians have given others a bad name because of what came to be known as “bible bashing,” where texts would be quoted, often in judgement against others. When we read verse 17 properly it’s clear that Jesus did not come to judge us, and condemn us for our sins, but to offer a way of reconciliation with God, and a way for forgiveness. We, too, can forgive others for their mistreatment of us, in whatever form and however bad, if we separate the sin from the sinner, as God does. I know from personal experience how freeing that can be, especially if God is given the chance to make something good out of a bad situation.

16th October 2016

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment
Artwork by Denyse at

2 Timothy 3:14 – 4:5

14Continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, 15and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.

1In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: 2proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. 3For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, 4and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. 5As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.

Text © New Revised Standard Version alt, used with permission.

The first thing that struck me about this passage was that it was exceptionally lucid for Paul, who exhorts Timothy to continue his own Christian journey, not allowing outside influences to detract from what he believed. Very quickly we encounter a problem with translation into English. It’s easy to read the first verse of this passage and think that Paul is asking Timothy to think of himself as the source of learning, but the Greek word translated “whom” is plural, not singular, so Paul is showing his humility and accepting that he is one among equals responsible for bringing the Christian faith to people. The second letter to Timothy could well have been the last of Paul’s writings, but he died around AD56, well before the first of the gospels was written, so what were the sacred writings to which Paul refers as helping Timothy from childhood, instructing about salvation through Christ? They couldn’t have been the Hebrew Scriptures (a.k.a. Old Testament) because they made no direct reference to Christ, and Paul’s epistles and letters have long been considered the oldest of the writings we have.

Because of the grammar of New Testament Greek, verse 16 has often been translated “all God-inspired scripture” but the construction of the sentence suggests that the NRSV’s “all scripture is inspired by God” is better. Either way, this passage does not suggest that God dictated everything in scripture. I think of Paul’s favourite response to claims such as that, which could easily be translated as “God forbid!” Paul, of all the New Testament writers, was foremost in admitting to his own fallibility in speaking on behalf of God, often saying “it is Paul writing, not Christ within me”. As a Pharisee before his conversion, Paul would have been used to pulling scripture apart, criticising it, examining it for its meaning in the current time, and putting the message in a contemporary context, so he acknowledged the inspiration from God, but never claimed that God wrote scripture. I like to think of the Bible as “the word of God, as perceived by men (mostly), and written for men in a patriarchal society.” As such I have no difficulty in accepting that the inspiration which resulted in our scriptures is still useful for teaching, reproof, correction and training, but we should look at it the way Paul does: we should be prepared to pull it apart and find out what the message is for us without any cultural clutter from the day.

Paul’s solemn charge for Timothy is that he keeps the faith, through thick and thin, showing patience – what is that in a world of instant gratification? – mindful that the time will come when poor theology will take hold because people will seek leaders who suit their way of thinking and working, not God’s. How often do we ignore what God wants in a leader and seek someone who agrees with us? We banish leaders who say things we don’t like, even if taking note would be to our benefit, just as Jeremiah was because he prophesied against the king. Do we do the same? As part of the process of selecting a new priest for a parish in the Perth diocese members of the congregation are asked what they want of the new pastoral leader. It is tempting to set boundaries such that the new priest would satisfy wants, not needs. For lay people, some churches appear very welcoming to newcomers, but when those new people try to join groups there are often reasons why they can’t, or the established group members talk among themselves and ignore the new, and prospectively best member.

At least one Australian diocese had a training programme for potential clergy requiring a theology degree to be done online, with little or no contact with other students, and a development programme locally based and controlled. That missed the huge benefit of studying with people of different denominations, generating significant discussions on matters of faith and belief, and opening eyes to other ways of looking at scripture. Ordinands in dioceses with such a tightly constrained programme are left open to the problems Paul was suggesting would happen. Having worked, in a number of dioceses, with God-centred people who have offered themselves for ordination and been rejected, I wonder how often that happens not because of the lack of call but because the person doesn’t suit the selection panel’s choice.

The last verse is good advice to all of us: keep sober, endure suffering which comes from standing up for your faith, spread the good news (i.e. be an evangelist), and carry out your ministry fully, even if that does mean pushing boundaries and being uncomfortable. That applies to me, just as much as to anyone else.

For a short passage this is full of punch, though there are passages with more.

25th September 2016

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

Luke 16:19-31
19“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ 25But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ 27He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house — 28for I have five brothers — that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ 29Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

Text © New Revised Standard Version, used with permission.

The “villain” in this story which is familiar to any regular church-goer is described as a rich man, dressed in purple and fine linen, and who feeds sumptuously every day. These days we have a wide range of colours available, and the price varies little, but in biblical times purple was an expensive colour which was generally restricted, partly because of the cost, to royalty and people in places of great responsibility. This description, then, is a very thinly veiled reference to the Pharisees and, particularly, to the Temple hierarchy, who loved to dress in expensive outfits, and who expected those beneath them to provide more than ample food, often at great expense. The poor man, not to be confused with the Lazarus whom Jesus raised from the dead, represents the starving millions who would have enough food if our rich character would only share some of his edible wealth. Translations from the original Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic of our scriptures all too often misses the sense in the text. Here, Lazarus didn’t just decide to lie down at the rich man’s gate: the Greek suggests that he was dumped there, inviting our rich man to show some compassion. Instead, it is the dogs who tend to Lazarus’ sores. We might cringe at the thought of dogs licking our wounds, but in doing so they were providing first aid to someone in need.

If we wonder what was the cause of the death of our two characters then we miss the most important points of the story. Despite finding himself being tormented the rich man doesn’t appear to have learned how to approach others. He speaks to Abraham as an equal, rather than as God’s chosen one to lead his people, somewhat like a young footballer with little talent talking to the Queen in the same way as he would to his team-mates. Our rich man also treats Lazarus as if he were a slave, not talking directly to him, but asking Abraham to send him to cool his tongue in his hour of need. He truly hasn’t got the message that he’s being tormented because of what he has done, or not done, during his earthly life.

There is a modern-day story about a priest who was warned to leave his home because a dam wall had burst and the town was about to be flooded, but refused help three times, only to drown. When the rich man in this parable wants Lazarus to warn his brothers about his fate Abraham reminds him that the prophets have already been warning people for a long time, and they have chosen not to listen. Then, in a precursor to Christ’s own resurrection, Abraham points out that even if someone returned from the dead that person’s warning wouldn’t be heeded. Christ Himself returned from the dead, but few people accepted that it was Him, and fewer still heeded His advice. These days, with our scientific expertise, people try to find alternative explanations to events which don’t fit our normal experience, missing the message which they should hear. It was no different then.

How close are we to either of the characters in this parable? Do we take advantage of the riches we can accumulate in our lifetime, and ignore the needs of others who are less fortunate than us? Do we treat others as if they were slaves to make us more comfortable, or to get us more possessions which we leave behind when we die? Do we even think about others in the world around us? Even worse, do we see the people in need around us, or are we too focussed on what we want to notice their existence.

It’s good to have a stable home in which to live, and enough money to provide for our basic needs, but it’s far too easy to want bigger or better things, or more possessions that we think will make us happier, and it’s far too easy to lose sight of those who are in need. As to the target of this parable, the old favourite “the Pharisees” it’s no surprise that they didn’t understand, or didn’t act on, the message Christ was giving them. What about today’s church leaders – and that includes me?